Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, is in a state of political crisis. On Thursday, several of the country’s most prominent politicians — including President Hashim Thaci — were charged with war crimes by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague. Thaci stepped down, saying he did not want to appear before the court as president.
“I resign as of today,” Thaci said after the indictment was announced, adding that he had made his decision “to protect the integrity of the presidency of Kosovo.” Before going to the headquarters of the European Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo in the capital, Pristina, Thaci said he would cooperate with justice officials and face the charges. He has now arrived in The Hague.
The others accused include Kadri Veseli, who stepped down as the head of the Democratic Party of Kosovo on November 5, former Assembly Chairman Jakup Krasniqi, and Rexhep Selimi, the parliamentary leader of Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), the largest party in Kosovo. Thaci, Veseli, Krasniqi and Selimi were high-ranking members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought against Serbia during the 1998-99 Kosovo War. They are accused of having committed or ordered war crimes — including murder, torture, persecution and the inhumane treatment of prisoners.
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In June, the chief prosecutor of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, Jack Smith, had announced that Thaci and the other three defendants stood accused of being involved in about 100 murders. At the time, however, the charges had not yet been made official. The charges against Thaci and the other politicians were made public on Thursday. the men accused have dismissed the accusations as groundless.
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Series of atrocities
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers court was set up in 2016 under pressure from international leaders. The court is constituted through Kosovan legislation, but all judges and public prosecutors are from other countries to ensure that cases are carried out with a greater degree of impartiality. The court is to deal with war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and displacement that occurred in Kosovo between early January 1998 and late December 2000.
Thaci, who served as Kosovo’s first postindependence prime minister from 2008 to 2014, had originally urged the Assembly of Kosovo to establish the special court. However, his political opponents accuse him of having done so solely for the sake of his personal interests and not because he was interested in investigating crimes committed by KLA members in the Kosovo War. They say Thaci had given in to pressure from the international community.
The opposition leader at the time, Albin Kurti, criticized the fact that the special court was responsible only for crimes committed by the KLA and not those carried out by the Serbian military and intelligence services against Kosovo Albanians. However, some crimes committed by Serbia’s military state during the Kosovo War were dealt with by the now-closed International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). During the Kosovo War, more than 13,000 people were killed — most of them by Serbian forces.
A troubling history
Now 52, Thaci has presented himself as a peacemaker in the postwar years. Thaci was once the political leader of the KLA. In addition to serving first as prime minister and finally as president, he was foreign minister from 2014 to 2016. He had a major role in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia that began in 2005. In 2013, he and his Serbian counterpart at the time, Ivica Dacic, signed the Brussels Agreement to normalize relations between the countries. Important parts of this agreement have not yet been implemented. The dialogue between the countries has been interrupted several times for extended periods; at the moment, talks are going slow.
A 2010 report by the Swiss prosecutor Dick Marty has hung over Thaci for a decade now. And he has reportedly spent a great deal of this period trying to prevent war crimes charges from being leveled against him. Critics in Kosovo have accused him of often neglecting important political issues in his country as a result. But now it is clear that Thaci will have to answer in court.
Marty’s report was a major factor in the establishment of the special tribunal. In 2011, a commission set up by the Council of Europe and led by Marty presented a report implicating KLA leaders such as Thaci, Veseli and others in suspected war crimes against Serbs, Roma and Albanians. One of the most serious crimes mentioned in the report had to do with the organ trade. Marty alleged that Thaci and others had been involved in killing prisoners of war and selling their organs. Thaci has always denied the allegations. To this day, none of the accused has been indicted for such activities. But charges may yet be laid.
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Neglected war crimes
The official narrative within Kosovo is that the war against the Serbian oppressors was legitimate and that crimes had occurred only in individual cases in which the KLA was not involved. Up to now, there has been only tentative debate on how much the KLA had to do with such crimes.
People who attempt to publicly broach the topic are often treated as traitors — as can be seen in the case of the political scientist and journalist Shkelzen Gashi, who said in an interview in April that some KLA leaders had committed war crimes. He received death threats, and former Prime Minister Kurti fired him as an adviser. In contrast, indicted war criminals in Kosovo are often celebrated as the heroes of the struggle for liberation and given important state positions.
The lack of effort within Serbia to confront the country’s own war crimes is another factor that has contributed to the muted debate in Kosovo. Only recently, Dacic — now the president of Serbia’s National Assembly — indirectly described Serbs who disclosed war crimes committed against Albanians or identified the sites of mass graves as traitors who should be punished.
Under these circumstances, a vigorous debate about wartime atrocities will not likely occur in Kosovo. What is certain, however, is that Thaci’s departure from the political stage in Kosovo will trigger a major crisis. Assembly Speaker Vjosa Osmani is serving as interim president. By law, the Assembly has to elect a new head of state within six months. But this may prove difficult as the Assembly is very divided. The government has only a very small and fragile majority. For this reason, observers believe that the government could soon fall — making new elections necessary.